The Phenomenal Product Manager: Influencing Engineers – Part 1

The article is a synopsis of The Phenomenal Product Manager: Chapter Three, written by Brian Lawley.

Your ability to influence and work effectively with engineers is a huge part of whether or not you’ll be successful as a Product Manager, and also whether you’ll be satisfied with your job.
–Brian Lawley

Let’s discuss how to work more effectively with your engineering team and individual engineers. If you can’t get your engineers to build the product that you believe meets customer needs and moves forward on your vision, then your product will fail and so will you. (Ouch!)

Ask yourself this…

“Are you succeeding or failing in working with your engineers?” Are you able to influence them? Get on the same page with them and build a sense of a team? Do the engineers take you seriously?

You’ve probably worked with some excellent teams over your career, and some that were not so excellent. Many PMs out there have had these experiences.

Let’s start with a short story

Lawley worked with a team at Apple that literally refused to let any Product Manager attend their team meetings. Basically, they’d ask PMs to just check in every two months to receive an update on their “progress.” They were building a product with no customer input, had spent several man-years of engineering effort and didn’t have a clear definition of what the final shipping product would do or how it would benefit customers. And they had no intention of bringing in a PM to help them figure it out (mainly because his predecessor had been incredibly incompetent). Incidentally, after a few months of focusing on the other products he was working on, he let them know that unless they changed the approach no product would be shipping to customers. Realizing they needed his assistance (at least to launch the product) they began to work together again as a team.

A team like this has its own challenges. But don’t be surprised if you end up in this situation. Product Management is very misunderstood and teams may have some negative preconceived notions. But when you come in as a competent PM many teams will be enthused to have your help.

In Part 1 of this chapter we’ll talk about how to adjust your strategies based on personalities, your team, and how cooperative or uncooperative they are. There are five techniques you can use and improve upon. In this blog, we’ll cover Credibility.

Strategy One: Credibility

Oftentimes as a Product Manager, you go into situations with engineers where the deck is stacked against you. They may have worked with a not so great PM, someone who was dishonest with them, or had broken their trust. Or they may simply have no idea what the role of a real PM is and may not understand why they need someone in that role.

Building credibility around all of this will be a challenge. Show them what you are doing, why you are doing it, and make sure they view you as an expert in a range of different areas.

Get technical

If you’re not able to establish enough technical credibility with your engineering team, they may not give you any respect and won’t want to work with you. Your ability to influence them will be very, very trivialized. It’s absolutely critical that you establish yourself as a technical expert. Follow the trends that are going on in your area of technology. Know the acronyms and the terminology. You don’t have to be a complete expert and understand all of the underpinnings of the technology, but you do have to prove to your team that you have the ability to understand.

If your team is talking about software architecture, for instance, show that you have the ability to ask the right questions. Really get to the fundamental understanding of the implications of the decisions and form some strong opinions about them.

This is also true if you’re working with anything having to do with standards. Lawley explained he had one team that was creating a product using FreeBSD, an open-source Unix operating system. The market was going towards Linux. Being able to talk about the trends and the underlying technology and its advantages and disadvantages was absolutely critical because the value of the intellectual property and the momentum of the marketplace were at stake.

Become a domain expert

Establish yourself as a domain expert in the Product Management domain. It’s critical that everyone in your company views you as someone who understands Product Management inside and out. You wouldn’t want to hire a CFO or an accountant to do their job if you didn’t know that they knew it inside and out—Product Management is no different.

Best practices

You need to be able to say confidently, “This is the wrong approach. Most companies do it the following way.” Be sure you have corresponding tools for creating Business Cases, Market Requirements Documents (MRDs), Product Requirements Documents (PRDs), Use Cases etc. Try out 280 Group’s Product Management Lifecycle Toolkit (a collection of templates covering the entire product lifecycle) or some other solution. It’s best to use an established methodology. If you have an efficient set of tools and best practices to show your team and use in action it can go a long way toward establishing credibility with your engineers. You know who spends a huge amount of time thinking about the tools they’re using…engineers. Engineers think about how to be more efficient and how to implement best practices, etc. If you do the same thing on the PM side, that will boost your credibility.

Additionally, any training or certifications you can pursue will help increase your domain credibility.

Know the market

You have to know more about your market than anyone in your entire company. Understand growth rate and competition. Have facts and data ready that you can bring up in discussions. Any time that you can use data about your market in discussions it will help to establish you as the market expert. There should be no one on your team who knows as much about your market as you do. You want to be viewed from the business side as having a complete understanding of your market.

VOC

You also need to be viewed as the person who is the true voice of the customer. When your engineering team is struggling over an issue and they come to you proactively to ask, “We could do it this way or that way; which way do you think the customers will want it?” then you’ve achieved this. You’ve established yourself as the real expert who has a finger on the pulse of the customer.

How do you establish yourself as the voice of the customer? Make lots of customer visits. For each customer visit, write up a summary of what you found. Include stories about what happened and information about the customer environment. Continually bring up the customer in your conversations and remind engineers that you’ve spent significant time with them.

Another good tactic is to bring your engineers along if you possibly can. It’s always extremely valuable to take engineers out in the field and have them meet some customers and observe what you do as a Product Manager in terms of the kind of questions you ask, etc.

Wrap Up

Building credibility with your engineering team is not always easy. These tips are a start. Stay tuned for Part 2 in this chapter where we’ll discuss our next strategy Building Rapport with the Team.

Read The Phenomenal Product Manager Book

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Product Management is one of the most dynamic and exciting careers around. Yet many Product Managers find themselves frustrated because of the unique challenges it presents. The Phenomenal Product Manager helps you overcome these challenges.

There are many books on the mechanics and core principles of Product Management, such as how to gather and write requirements, build roadmaps and perform other tasks. The Phenomenal Product Manager tells you the rest of the story—the strategies, tactics and techniques that will turn you into a great Product Manager.

Based on the author’s 25 years of Product Management experience, as well as perspectives from the world’s leading Product Management experts, The Phenomenal Product Manager is a must read for every Product Manager who wants to be more successful and get more enjoyment from their job.

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